5 Imagineering secrets of the Tower of Terror on its 20th anniversary

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Today is a big day! It’s the 20th anniversary of Walt Disney World’s Tower of Terror ride, which makes its home in Hollywood Studios at the Orlando resort (amongst other places). In honor of the day when the best ride Disney World ever Imagineered was welcomed, here are 5 facts about the technology that went into this innovation that was way ahead of its time.

1. The ride vehicle is unlike any other free-fall system in the world.

When Tower of Terror first premiered in 1994, the ride system was entirely unique and blew the free-fall market out of the water. Where most rides operate on a standard, immovable vertical track, Tower of Terror’s vehicles have the ability to move in and out of the vertical motion shaft and the freedom to move horizontally as the ride dictates.

Fun fact: At 199 feet tall, one more foot would have forced the Imagineers to include flashing red lights on the top of the building as per FAA regulations, which would have ruined the illusion. One full drop inside the tower is a complete 170 feet.

2. The hotel’s permanent guests are projected into forced perspective space using a complicated illusion technique.

As the elevator ascends the tower, it makes a few creepy stops. First up is a visit to the hotel’s permanent ghosts guests, just before you enter the Fifth Dimension. (These guys checked in on Halloween night in 1939, and promptly bit it.) The corridor appears to be a full-length hallway populated by rooms and objects. In truth, it’s only six feet deep and, at the far end, is only four feet tall. How’s that for lifting the veil! This perspective is achieved in the same way that Cinderella’s castle is made to appear so tall– or Hogwarts, if you’re more of a Universal person (read: blasphemer).

The five ghosts who arrive to warn you away from going any further appear to float in the middle of the space without any fog, scrim, or otherwise obvious tipoff that they aren’t real. As it turns out, the ghosts are projected in a similar way to the residents of the Haunted Mansion that you’ve probably seen having a dinner party, using a technique called “Pepper’s ghost“. This illusion employs panes of glass, at 45 degree angles to the front and back walls, to reflect the image into the center of the space. The dead folks you see in that hallway are the same actors from the Library video that welcomed you to the tower, which you can view at bottom of this article. You’re welcome.

Fun fact: The little Hollywood starlet in this scene is holding a Mickey Mouse doll!

3. The elevator is autonomous, much like the Google Car.

The coolest part of the ride is the vehicle, hands down. It’s an autonomous guided vehicle (AGV), otherwise know as self-driving. This is the same technology Google is developing for use on the road. There is no track and there is nobody directing the car through the Twilight Zone. Rather, the elevator box is on wheels, if you can believe it, and a computer is driving it through the corridors using the Fifth Dimension’s creepy scenes to identify visual queues, which direct its turns.

Now raise your hand if you thought it was a track.

4. The drops have increased in quantity and complication over the past 20 years.

When the ride first scared the crap out of visitors in the early 90s, it was scaring way less crap out of them than it is now. There was only one drop in the ride in ’94, which seems preposterous when you think about all the ride time we get these days. Apparently, we’re spoiled.

Over the years, that 170 foot drop saw increases in quantity and they were eventually made unpredictable, all in the name of the element of surprise. A computer randomizes the drops now, including one full 170-ft drop along with on faux drop meant to startle the guests, and a handful of other unpredictable up-down sequences. There is no queue of patterns, the patterns are created on the fly.

5. That’s not just gravity you’re feeling.

There are cables attached to both the top and bottom of the elevator cab. Imagineers didn’t just want riders to fall at the natural speed of gravity, but wanted us to feel absolute terror at being pulled toward the ground so fast that we rise out of our seats. That’s right, you’re supposed to fly up out of your seat, restrained only by the small seatbelt. That explains why you can never find those sunglasses you had on top of your head after you’ve escaped the Twilight Zone. Thanks, Imagineers.

A warm welcome back to those of you who made it, and a friendly word of warning, something you won’t find in any guidebook. The next time you check into a deserted hotel on the dark side of Hollywood, make sure you know just what kind of vacancy you’re filling. Or you may find yourself a permanent resident… of the Twilight Zone.

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  • Jeff

    Thanks for this. I can’t believe that hallway is only 6 ft deep. Amazing! I’ve been on both DLR’s and WDW’s ToT…and I have to say they are both unique. but I prefer Florida’s overall. You just can’t beat the incredible theming as you approach the front entrance to the one at WDW.